The Complexities of Cross-Border Engagement

Several forms of cross-border or transnational engagement in the higher ed press recently have focused on alternatives to the highly scrutinized brick and mortar international branch campuses.

April 14, 2014

Several forms of cross-border or transnational engagement have received attention in the higher ed press recently. The articles focus on alternatives to the highly scrutinized brick and mortar international branch campuses. Numerous models of cross-border engagement exist and institutions are wise to consider the full spectrum when developing internationalization strategies. Descriptions of these alternatives tend to focus on what’s working and how a particular institution has benefited, while ignoring the many challenges that are inherent in transnational work. Much like the international branch campus, all forms of transnational engagement have advantages and disadvantages and pose unique challenges, including global centers and academic partnerships.


Global Centers

Perhaps one of the oldest forms of international engagement is the establishment of centers of study and/or research in foreign countries. Traditionally these have been purely sites for home campus students to study abroad without the hassle of transferring credits. Study centers benefit institutions by allowing them to control academic standards and costs. Columbia University has received praise for its Global Centers approach, a hybrid model of foreign outposts that serve as study and research hubs, with eight locations in Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Global centers offer more than a study abroad site by forming local connections and programs that align with the affiliated institution’s strategic goals and support research opportunities for faculty. While this model has advantages, there are several issues an institution should consider before attempting replication.

Global centers can serve a multitude of institutional purposes, including a site for study abroad, increasing research opportunities, improving bilateral relations, and (yes) revenue generation. One common way to increase revenue is to admit study abroad students from other universities. Identifying the core purposes from the beginning is crucial to the development of the partnership and programs; however, an institution must remain flexible because purposes can change over time depending on local country and home campus demands. While it might seem easier to mimic a currently operating (and seemingly successful) global center, an institution should define its core purpose in alignment with their unique mission, values, and goals. Transparency of purpose for all parties involved in the partnership is an important characteristic for success, and those purposes may not necessarily always match. What’s important is that institutions engage in transparent and mutually beneficial relationships while ignoring the pressure to align their purposes with outside expectations.

Despite the relatively “light” commitment when compared to establishing an international branch campus, all cross-border engagement involves forming a partnership on some level. Only the stakeholders and their level of investment differ. To our knowledge, it is not possible—nor would it be wise—to establish an educational entity outside of one’s own country without first forming an agreement with a local entity in the country of expansion, be that a government ministry, a private company, an NGO, or a multilateral agency such as OECD. The partnership should provide the legal classification necessary to operate intended programs and the local connections and cultural understanding necessary to be successful.

While the global center model provides programmatic flexibility, the sustainability of this approach is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, hiring local administrators—who are inclined to stick around longer than expat staff—can help negotiate cultural expectations, identify local needs, provide important connections, and preserve institutional memory. Furthermore, hiring local staff helps with, but doesn’t completely solve, the issues inherent with the often-unavoidable shorter-term commitments of home campus faculty. On the other hand, the limited investment strategy (e.g., leased buildings) that permits the lower-risk more expedient exit strategy may be perceived by the local community as a lack of long-term commitment, which carries some potentially negative consequences. For instance, local faculty may hesitate to engage in research projects and other academic collaboration if they fear their partners are not committed to the relationship.

What Columbia is doing with its Global Centers is not a wholly new phenomenon in international engagement. They are, however, attempting to build upon a decades-old model by offering greater opportunities for engagement for all stakeholders.


Academic Partnerships

Numerous forms of transnational academic partnerships exist, including joint- and double-degree programs, twinning, validation, articulation, and franchising. For every new tweak or deviation, a new term is coined. One such partnership, the University of Michigan-Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU) Joint Institute recently received the IIE Andrew Heiskell Award for innovation in international education. The Institute, located on the SJTU campus provides Chinese students an opportunity to enroll in a U.S.-style engineering program with the option to transfer to Ann Arbor and earn a second degree. For Michigan, the Institute is a trusted site where they can send students to study abroad. The Joint Institute is lauded as a model partnership that benefits both Michigan and SJTU (read more). Of course, no transnational partnership develops without challenges, so what are some potential issues and important questions institutions should consider before engaging in academic partnerships?

Institutional academic partnerships often stem from individual relationships between faculty or administrators, as in the case of the Joint Institute. There are certain advantages of starting with an existing connection, including the already established trust and a basic understanding of what each institution has to offer. Although comfortable, relying on pre existing personal connections won’t necessarily lead to the best institutional connections and, if pursued, may result in suboptimal partnerships. We’re not suggesting institutions ignore personal connections but, ultimately, the institutions must be align in terms of relative prestige, mission, and program goals. In other words, don’t force a square peg into the round hole just because two pegs know each other.  

Academic partnerships should be mutually beneficial to each institution otherwise they aren’t sustainable. This is easier said than done. In the case of the Joint Institute, this process likely took years of negotiating and tweaking to satisfy both sides. However, don’t confuse mutual benefit with partnership equality. In reality, one partner usually carries the upper hand. Institutional prestige typically dictates this position of power, which is influenced by factors such as global rankings, reputation, and proximity to a global economic center. Each side should consider the implications of this imbalance. For instance, dominant partners often expect to have the final say over contested issues and the lessor partner is frequently expected to foot a majority of the bill.

Both institutions interested in forming a partnership must consider if they have an internal structure that can support the initiative or are willing to create one. Increasingly, larger institutions (and some smaller ones) have a staff member(s)—typically affiliated with the Provost’s Office—dedicated to vetting, establishing, and coordinating global engagement opportunities. Anyone involved in forming international partnerships will tell you it requires significant time, personnel, negotiation, and money. For the majority of institutions that don’t have the luxury of staff dedicated to these often-tedious tasks full-time, they must seriously consider whether the potential benefits of a partnership outweigh the hassle and drain on resources.

The many deviations of global engagement, including academic partnerships and global centers, provide institutions with a nearly limitless number of possibilities to achieve their international goals. Yet, the potential benefits of cross-border engagement should not overshadow the complexities and shortcomings of establishing such programs. For every successful project like Columbia’s Global Centers and the Joint Institute, there are far more failed or underperforming initiatives.


Darbi Roberts is an academic and career advisor at Columbia University and a doctoral student at Teachers College in New York, NY.

David Stanfield is a Research Assistant and Doctoral Candidate at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, MA.

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